The Oft-Forgotten Fishery

PCFFAThe fishery for North Pacific albacore is an important one for West Coast-based commercial harvesters and the communities which depend upon, and/or benefit from, access to the resource.

Between 1996 and 2020, the U.S. commercial albacore fleet harvested an average of 11,469 metric tons (roughly 25.3 million pounds). In 2020, the fleet landed about 16 million pounds with ex-vessel revenues totaling $25 million.

In 2007, it was the first tuna fishery in the world to achieve certification by the Marine Stewardship Council. The American Albacore Fishing Association and Western Fish Boat Owners Association share the certificate, which was recertified in 2020.

The West Coast commercial fishery is primarily prosecuted by vessels utilizing troll or pole and line gear and while there is no set season, the fishery typically gets underway in late June or early July and continues until the fall. There is an active recreational component to the fishery, most recently operating between Northern California and the State of Washington.

The stock is assessed every three years by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean. The most recent stock assessment, prepared in 2020, found the stock “is likely not overfished” and that “current levels of fishing are not likely resulting in overfishing.”

It bears noting, the fishery is prosecuted in both the Eastern Pacific and Western Pacific. In 2020, a total of 36,226 mt was harvested by fishery participants from the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Aside from a moderate surface fishery operated by Japanese fleets, the majority of harvest in the western Pacific comes from longline fleets.

Management of the fishery is somewhat convoluted. U.S. harvesters are subject to domestic management measures implementing actions agreed upon at the international level. Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) are international bodies dedicated to the sustainable management of fishery resources in a particular region of international waters, or of highly migratory species. RFMOs may focus on certain species of fish (e.g., the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna) or have a wider scope related to living marine resources in general within a region (e.g., the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, or IATTC).

This wide diversity of mandates and areas of application and also effective implementation of regulations, opens up opportunities to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing vessels.

North Pacific albacore falls under the purview of two RFMOs—the IATTC for eastern Pacific fisheries and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) for western Pacific fisheries. Within the WCPFC, the Northern Committee makes recommendations to the Commission on species that are mostly found in the Convention Area north of 20 degrees north, including North Pacific albacore. Actions agreed upon at the IATTC are called Resolutions, while those in the WCPFC are labeled Conservation and Management Measures (CMMs).

Internationally, the fishery is currently controlled by managing the efforts of harvesting nations. The WCPFC and IATTC have adopted similar effort controls (WCPFC CMM 2019-03 and IATTC resolutions C-05-02 and C-18-03). These measures all require RFMO members, cooperating non-members and participating territories to “take necessary measures to ensure that the level of fishing effort by their vessels fishing for North Pacific albacore” is not increased beyond 2002-2004 annual average levels. U.S. effort over that timeframe averaged 13,311 days/year. In 2020, U.S. effort was less than 10,000 days.

So why did we provide that high-level overview of management of North Pacific albacore? In short, the current management methodology for the fishery is being reviewed. Beginning in 2015, the ISC began conducting a Management Strategy Evaluation for the stock, which evaluated the performance of various candidate reference points against several management objectives. In this case, the reference points of concern were the target reference point (TRP) and limit reference point (LRP). A detailed discussion about reference points is beyond the scope of this article; but the WCPFC’s working definition of a LRP is based on the following principles:

  • “They define a state of the fishery that is considered to be undesirable and which management action should avoid;
  • The probability of breaching an LRP should be very low;
  • Management actions should be taken before the fishery falls below or is at risk of falling below an LRP.”

For U.S. fisheries management, an LRP is analogous to a stock that is overfished. In 2014, the WCPFC adopted a LRP for North Pacific albacore of 20%. In layman’s terms, the LRP is breached when the current spawning stock biomass falls below 20% of its unfished level. In addition to the current LRP, the MSE process evaluated two additional LRPs: 14% of unfished biomass and 7.7% of unfished biomass. It bears noting that the IATTC has not yet adopted a LRP for North Pacific albacore.

The TRP is an expression of the relative size of the spawning stock biomass that is thought to be an ideal harvest level. It is a state of a fishery and/or resource which is considered to be desirable and at which management actions, whether during development or stock rebuilding, should aim.

Breaching a TRP, provided it is not indicative of a crash of the stock, should not necessitate management action. Neither RFMO has adopted a TRP for the North Pacific albacore fishery. The MSE process evaluated two potential TRPs: 40% of unfished spawning stock biomass and 50% of unfished spawning stock biomass.

The third component to the MSE process was consideration of management objectives. The WCPFC adopted an interim management objective in 2014:

“The management objective for the North Pacific albacore fishery is to maintain the biomass, with reasonable variability, around its current level in order to allow recent exploitation levels to continue and with a low risk of breaching the limit reference point.”

Each harvesting nation engaged with its fishery participants and other stakeholders to provide management objectives for the MSE to consider. The MSE process included extensive stakeholder consultation during three international stakeholder workshops to define a set of operational management objectives. The management objectives evaluated in the MSE were:

  • Maintain spawning stock biomass above the limit reference point;
  • Maintain depletion of total biomass around historical (2006-2015) average depletion;
  • Maintain catches above average historical (1981-2010) catches;
  • The change in catch between years should be relatively gradual; and,
  • Maintain fishing intensity at the target value with reasonable variability.

This summer, the Northern Committee and the IATTC are expected to consider a harvest strategy for the fishery focused on reviewing the aforementioned management objectives and identifying a LRP and TRP. It would be incumbent upon fishery participants to become well versed in the subject matter and engage with your local association(s) to have your voice heard. The harvest strategy is expected to form the foundation for the development of harvest control rules which could result in management actions if the stock’s spawning stock biomass declines.

In our opinion, it’s imperative that both the IATTC and WCPFC adopt identical objectives and reference points. This ensures certainty and consistency between the eastern Pacific surface fisheries and the mixed surface and longline fisheries in the western Pacific.

Given the recent performance of the fishery; and that the next scheduled stock assessment is next year, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we may be putting the harvest strategy to work sooner than later.

Mike Conroy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached at via email: or by cell phone: (415) 638-9730.